“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.
Although there is a lack of hard data about the population of Yellow-breasted Bunting, there is much anecdotal evidence of its decline, as outlined in the paper, and there can be no doubt that the contraction in its range and the reduction in numbers recorded at communal wintering sites are very real.
And it was in September 2013 that we found a bird trapper at Nanpu, on the Hebei coast, using a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting as a lure alongside some mist-nets.
So it has been with some surprise and delight that, this autumn, there have been record numbers of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen in Beijing. Definitely something to celebrate!
Here are a few recent counts:
44 on 26 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend). Exactly double the previous Beijing record count!
14 on 29 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Jan-Erik Nilsen)
29 on 30 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend)
15 on 1 September 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Terry Townshend and Jeff Hollobaugh)
Although data are sparse, the records we have from Birdtalker (the Chinese bird record database) show no change in the species’ status in Beijing in last 10 years. The important caveat here is that there has been much more observer coverage of good habitat this year, especially in late August (the peak period for autumn migration of this species).
Whatever the reason, we are very happy to see good numbers of this most beautiful of buntings.
Here is a photo from this autumn in Beijing and two short videos – the first of adult male singing on the breeding grounds (in Mongolia) and the second of autumn birds in Beijing.
Thanks to Paul Holt and Jan-Erik Nilsen for sharing thoughts and sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting via the Birding Beijing WeChat group which contributed to this article.
On 31 July there were celebrations in Beijing when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that China’s capital city would host the 2022 Winter Olympics. After the hugely successful 2008 Summer Games, the decision meant that Beijing would become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. That is most certainly something of which Beijingers should be proud.
However, it soon became apparent that the proposed downhill ski site falls within one of only two national nature reserves in Beijing – Songshan. The Songshan reserve comprises two peaks – Da (Big) Haituo and Xiao (Little) Haituo, and official bid documents show that one of the slopes below the 2,198-metre high Xiao Haituo is the preferred site for the downhill skiing event.
The slopes below this peak contain many rare species, including Beijing’s only Shanxi orchids (Cypripedium shanxiense), not to mention the breeding habitat of several endangered and range restricted birds including Grey-sided Thrush (Turdus feae), Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), Chinese Thrush (Turdus mupinensis) and “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus). And it was in late May this year that I enjoyed a fantastic afternoon’s birding at this site with visiting Dick Newell, Rob Joliffe and Lyndon and Hilde Kearsley (here for the Swift project), during which time we encountered 7 species of phylloscopus warbler – Chinese Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Eastern Crowned, Hume’s Leaf, Pallas’s Leaf, Yellow-browed and Yellow-streaked as well as brief views of Grey-sided Thrush and ‘heard only’ Slaty-backed Flycatcher and White-throated Rock Thrush.
After the announcement, online protests began with opposition being voiced on hugely popular social media sites such as WeChat and Weibo (“Chinese Twitter”).
“On 1 August Wang Xi, who recently received his PhD and works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, overlaid maps from the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation report with those from the reserve’s website and posted the result on his Weibo account: both the start and end of the alpine runs fall within the reserve, he found.
Xi told Nature’s news team that his main motivation was to spread news of the possible ecological impact on plants there, including three orchid species that are classified at the highest protection level under Beijing’s conservation system. “It’s a chance for the government to connect with the people and talk to each other to solve this problem,” he says. “I am not against the Olympic Games, but they should be carried out in an environmentally friendly way.”
The response by government officials has been to declare that, under the current plans, the boundaries of the national nature reserve at Songshan will be “adjusted” and that the “new” reserve will be 30% larger than the area currently under protection.
Conservationists were quick to point out that, despite being larger, the proposed new reserve will lose arguably its most biodiverse part. More importantly, the proposed site would violate environmental protection laws recently lauded by the government and could create a dangerous precedent that could give license to local governments to adjust the boundaries of other nature reserves, hampering already strenuous efforts to conserve other, in many cases more significant, sites.
According to 2013 government regulations, those who wish to change nature-reserve boundaries must submit an application that includes a public comment, an ecological assessment and four other documents. There is no evidence that this has happened. And it was only in 2013 that President Xi Jinping said:
“We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions.”
“Recognising its responsibility to promote sustainable development, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considers the environment as an integral dimension of Olympism, alongside sport and culture. The IOC ensures that the Olympic Games take place in conditions that take into account the environment in a responsible way, and collaborates with the relevant public or private authorities, with the aim of placing sport at the service of humanity, thus contributing to achieving UN Millennium Development Goal 7”
What is Millennium Development Goal 7? To “Ensure Environmental Sustainability”. This goal has 4 targets, including:
Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources
Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss
It is very difficult to see how the “adjustment” of nature reserve boundaries, sacrificing some of the most biodiverse parts, is consistent with these commitments.
Perhaps significantly, the posts by concerned citizens on social media are no longer visible or accessible.
In an exchange on Twitter, Birding Beijing raised the issue with the official Twitter account of Beijing2022 (@GoBeijing2022). Birding Beijing was told that:
“boundary shift in the interests of region’s ‘sustainable dev.’ & ‘ecological preservation’, making protected area 1/3 bigger”
When challenged that the size was less important than the contents, the same Twitter feed said that plans were not final and that there would be further consultations. And when asked about how people could contribute to the consultations, Birding Beijing was told that “affected local villagers” could make their views known via their local Peoples Congress.
It remains to be seen whether the views of biologists and conservationists (most of whom don’t live in the immediate vicinity) will be taken into account in the final decision on the location of the downhill ski slope. I hope they are. Failure to do so could be hugely damaging for Beijing’s incredibly rich, but threatened, biodiversity, paving the way for local governments in other parts of the country to adjust the boundaries of their own reserves in the name of “development”. And it makes something of a mockery of the IOC’s environmental principles.
However, if the government listens to the conservationists and adjust its plans, it would be a hugely positive signal about the status of national nature reserves and the decision would, rightly, be lauded by conservationists both within and outside China, strengthening China’s international reputation and providing substance to underpin the high-level rhetoric about the need to protect the environment.
I think every reasonable person recognises that there will be some impact on biodiversity as countries seek to develop and increase the prosperity of its citizens. However, with the growing stresses faced by our natural environment, we desperately need enlightened decision-making so that, where possible and at reasonably low cost, development takes place whilst minimising the impact on the environment. With several less biodiverse mountains close by that could host the downhill ski slope, the decision should be straightforward.
UPDATE: On Friday 21 August the IOC responded to my email about the environmental concerns:
Many thanks for your email. We have taken note of your concerns and we will follow up with the relevant people.
Please take note that our teams are currently travelling, but we will do our best to get back to you as soon as possible.
IOC Media Relations Team
INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE
Château de Vidy
1007 Lausanne, Switzerland
Tel: +41 (0)21 621 6000″
Looking forward to the response from “the relevant people”…
The 1st China International Birding Festival will take place at the superb migration hotspot of Laotieshan, Liaoning Province on 25-27 September 2015.
The event, sponsored by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), China Birdwatching Society and the Dalian Wildlife Conservation Society, has been designed to promote birding and wildlife conservation in China.
The 3-day event will include a 24-hr ‘bird race’ and teams of up to 4 people from around the world are welcome to test their birding skills against the locals. China birding legend, Paul Holt, will be one of the judges.
The generosity of the hosts means that accommodation will be provided but travel to and from Laotieshan is at the expense of the participants.
Readers of this website will know that Laotieshan is a special place. You can read about it here. The Festival has been timed to coincide with peak raptor migration and, in the right conditions, it’s possible to see more than 1,000 ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARDS in a day, as well as many other species (we recorded more than 200 species during an autumn visit in 2013). In the early morning passerine migration is impressive and, offshore, rafts of STREAKED SHEARWATERS will add to the mix. I can’t wait!
More details, including an application form, can be found here. Although the deadline on the flyer for entering teams is 8 August, this is flexible. But hurry – it’s likely to be very popular!
More importantly, the Festival should serve as a boost to the fledgling (but growing fast) birding community in China. Be there or be sqaure!
EDIT: As at 10 August more than 30 teams have entered! And, as the deadline for applications has been extended to 15 August, you still have time to get together that team to challenge for title! Each team will be allocated an english-speaking member of the China Birdwatching Society to help with any logistical or language challenges over the course of the festival. So there’s no excuse not to be there!
One of Birding Beijing’s priorities is to provide helpful information about the birds of China’s capital for beginners and experienced birders alike. It’s a delight, therefore, to announce that there are two new downloadable PDF guides available on this website.
The first – A Guide To Beijing’s Common Birds – is designed to help the beginner to identify some of the most frequently seen birds. With photos and brief explanatory text – including English, scientific and Chinese names – it’s a handy guide to download onto a smartphone or to have printed on your desk!
The second – A Guide To Beijing’s Most Sought-after Birds – is designed to help visiting birders to connect with the “Top 10” special birds that can be found in China’s capital. From range-restricted species such as the Grey-sided Thrush to the spectacular Przewalski’s Redstart, this guide should help to increase the chances of encountering these birds during a visit to Beijing.
Of course, bird distributions are not static and so these guides are works in progress, based on best-available information at this time. If you spot any errors or omissions or have any information that will improve these guides, please contact me using the Contact form or through the Comments facility.
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”– Aldous Huxley
So-called “propaganda posters” have been an important part of Chinese culture since the Mao Zedong era. These often colourful and striking artworks were designed to sway public opinion in favour of its policies (a bit like News International does for right wing governments in the West today.. cough). The posters have become collectible and several of my China-based friends spend large amounts of their spare time visiting flea markets to add to their collection. It was one of these friends who introduced me to these posters and I soon became interested in how the environment was depicted. Perhaps surprisingly to some, as far back as the 1950s posters promoted messages about the benefits of planting trees and “greening” the countryside. The header image is from the early 1970s with the message “Start a new upsurge of the people’s duty of tree planting movement”.
However, there is one poster that jumped out at me.
This poster is from 1959 and was part of a series to support Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. How this policy played out is an important lesson about the unintended consequences of altering the natural balance of ecosystems. It won’t surprise many to hear that the campaign backfired spectacularly and it’s a lesson that ALL governments would do well to heed.
Mao Zedong initiated the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 after concluding that several blights should be exterminated – namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. According to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”
Mao was particularly annoyed by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 树麻雀) part of the diet of which was grain. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people. Armed with these statistics, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem. Millions of people were mobilised and the excitement was captured in this report from a Shanghai newspaper:
“On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labour force was mobilised into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”
The effectiveness of the campaign was such that the Tree Sparrow population was decimated. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, crops were being devastated in a way far worse than if birds had been spared. At least partly as a result, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low.
The campaign against the sparrows was finally terminated in late 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders highlighted the findings of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin. Zhu and Zheng had autopsied the digestive systems of sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food. This showed that sparrows were beneficial for humans.
On this advice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared a complete halt to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing sparrows with “bed bugs” in the “Four Pests” campaign. Suddenly sparrows were not just protected but the domestic population was supplemented by imports of sparrows from Russia! Eventually, after several years of poor crop yields, the situation began to improve. The number of people who starved in the 1958-1961 famine is disputed – and it’s impossible to say how much of the disaster was caused by the extermination of sparrows – but there can be no doubt that this episode is a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of human interference into natural ecosystems. I hope it’s one lesson in history that is not forgotten by the current generation of leaders, not just in China but around the world.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. After the incredibly successful project to track the migration route of Beijing’s Swifts, and the unprecedented media coverage including articles in the UK’s Guardian and Xinhua (one of China’s largest media agencies), there was barely time to catch up on sleep before I boarded a plane to Ulaanbaatar to participate in a survey of remote southeastern Mongolia to look for Jankowski’s Bunting (栗斑腹鹀, Emberiza jankowskii).
The status of Jankowski’s Bunting is precarious. It is clinging on at just a handful of sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and Jilin Province. However, the sighting of a single bird in southeastern Mongolia in September 2013 raised hopes that there could be a previously undiscovered population in this remote and under-birded part of the country and a plan was devised to put together a team to survey this area in early June. Hopes were high. The area was close to the known sites in Chinese Inner Mongolia and would likely contain areas of similar habitat – grassland dotted with Siberian Apricot bushes – preferred by Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.
The team, consisting of representatives of the China Birdwatching Society, the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences plus Yann Muzika (of Sillem’s Mountain Finch rediscovery fame) and myself arrived in Ulaanbaatar full of optimism.
With the invaluable help of Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science And Conservation Center of Mongolia, we had planned a circular route first taking us southeast from Ulaanbaatar to some remote protected areas in the south close to the Chinese border, from where we would head east and then north to another section of the Chinese border, rarely visited by anyone let alone birders. We were to camp wild and drive more than 2,500 kilometres in search of our target bird.
The journey was an adventure that took us through some stunning Mongolian landscapes with the grassland varying in character every day and the spectacular light at sunset and sunrise creating dynamic landscapes that changed in form every few seconds.
And the birds were brilliant… We recorded 180 species including some spectacular encounters with breeding Oriental Plovers and Saker Falcons, displaying Great Bustards and Pied Harriers, singing Yellow-breasted Buntings and Chinese Bush Warblers and a gezillion larks – Mongolian Larks were omnipresent with Greater Short-toed, Asian Short-toed and Horned Larks also in plentiful supply.
Sadly, despite our best efforts, we drew a blank with Jankowski’s Bunting and, even taking into account the impact of a destructive fire that ripped through the area in April, we found very few suitable sites, all of which were small and fragmented. Due to a current fire in the far southeast, we were unable to reach potentially the best habitat and it is just possible that some Jankowski’s Buntings may exist here.
Despite our disappointment at not finding Jankowski’s Bunting in Mongolia, negative results are just as important and positive results and the existing known sites in Inner Mongolia now take on even greater importance. If Jankowski’s Bunting is to survive we must re-double our efforts to protect these birds by continuing our engagement with the local government, farmers and communities. That work begins now.
Big thanks to Vivian Fu, Yu Yat-tung, Yann Muzika and Wu Lan for their great company on the adventure and a special thanks to our Mongolian hosts, Nyambayar, Dr Tseveen, Oggy and Huiga, all of whom put in an enormous amount of work to make our survey possible.
“Woohoo!” was the shout when the first geolocator-carrying Swift was caught early this morning at The Summer Palace.
After a wait of 12 months, we were finally going to find out, for the first time, where Beijing’s swifts spent the winter. In the end we re-captured 13 of the 31 birds fitted with geolocators last spring and, after downloading and processing the data (all worked perfectly – big kudos to Migrate Technology in England), we discovered that these magnificent birds travel an incredible 26,000km per year on migration to spend the winter in southern Africa. It’s astonishing to think that, over the lifetime of the average Beijing Swift, the distance travelled on migration is equivalent to half way from Earth to the Moon!
The map below shows a typical track of a Beijing Swift, based on preliminary analysis of the data from the 13 birds re-trapped today. A fuller analysis will be made in due course with a scientific paper planned for later this year.
These iconic birds – synonymous with Beijing since 1417 when they made their nests in the original city gatehouses – arrive in Beijing in April and, after breeding, begin their long journey to Africa in late July, taking a route that first leads them west-northwest into Mongolia, from where they pass north of the Tianshan mountains, then south through Iran and central Arabia into tropical Africa, before spending 3 months of the winter in Namibia and the Western Cape. They begin the return journey in February, retracing a similar route, arriving in Beijing in mid-April, a journey that sees them cross about 20 borders. Wow!
Again, I was hugely impressed with the professionalism of the China Birdwatching Society and its army of volunteers. Not only did they get up incredibly early to set up the nets at 0230 but, together with visiting swift ringer Lyndon Kearsley and Dick Newell, they captured, processed and released more than 80 birds in 2 hours, including downloading data from 13 birds with geolocators and fitting a further 25 geolocators to ‘new’ birds. Impressive stuff. And it was great to see Liu Yang, one of China’s top ornithological professors, making the trip from Guangdong to participate in the catch.
This was the scene at around 0600 on the day of the catch. A wonderful sight and sound.
I had the privilege of releasing a geolocator-tagged bird and Zhang Weimin took this photo. A special moment for me. I wish it well on its journey to southwest Africa..
Big thanks to Professor Zhou, Ms Fu Jianping and Wu Lan from the China Birdwatching Society for their incredible hard work in making this project possible. And big kudos to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their vision and expertise. I’d also like to thank Lyndon’s wife, Hilde and Rob Jolliffe (“JJ”) for their help and good company during these past few days..